Thursday, March 20, 2014

International Day of Happiness: How Will You Be Happy?


Today, March 20th, the first day of Spring, is also the International Day of Happiness!  Of course, here in Meadville, I woke up to snow, which did not, unusually, impede my own personal happiness index—like the country of Bhutan which has an official National Happiness Index (really! They track and promote happiness!)—because I have decided to use an overabundance of exclamation points today in celebration of this happiness holiday!  A way to push myself out of the gray and into the gratitude. 

How do I feel happy today?  Let me count the ways.  I am happy that the house has grown momentarily silent after the pell-mell rush of the kids off to school.  I am happy that I’m about to practice my headstand—and I’ll achieve liftoff for a few seconds, something I wasn’t able to do even last week.  I’m happy I am continuing my meditation practice; it is a brief, sane spot at the beginning of the day that serves as my anchor.  I’m happy that I’ve managed to maintain stability now for a long, peaceful stretch of time—it brings me hope and joy.  I’m happy that my daughter seems happy in her group of friends and secure in her own self.  I’m happy for my son who has finally started to sleep in his own bed—just a week ago he didn’t believe he could do this and was despairing that he’d be the only kid still unable to sleep in his own room, so this accomplishment is HUGE!  I’m happy for my husband who was just yesterday promoted to Full Professor, a distinction he’s worked long and hard for.  I’m happy that I feel secure in myself, and no longer feel frayed and empty but feel bound and full.  And happy that there’s another load of laundry to fold—all those small—but getting bigger!—socks to match up.  And happy to check-in with my husband mid-day by phone just to see how things are, nothing in particular, just the sound of his voice.  And happy to pick the kids up from school, and listen to their rush of chatter in the backseat, their bickering, too.  And happy to go to my Recovery meeting tonight because it is a recovery meeting and my days keep growing.  And happy to come home after that to the family that’s mine.

How will you be happy today?     



            --Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I Learned On My Winter Vacation: Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat: Proper Exercise, Breathing, Diet, Positive Thinking, and Meditation. 

These are the words that greeted me on the welcome sign when I arrived at the ashram in the little boat taxi in the Bahamas a few weeks ago on my solo vacation journey.  Even though it only lasted five days, I still call it a journey because it pushed my boundaries and asked me to grow in ways that longer, month-long trips to Greece or Italy haven’t. 
The last time I was in the Bahamas I was twenty years old, on Spring Break with a bunch of women from college and our primary objectives were to get tan and get drunk.  We alternated our bikinis, along with the beer and rum drinks, but remained devoted to the brilliant sunshine and the college boys on the beach.  On my boat taxi ride in to the ashram, the driver asked if I’d ever been to the Bahamas before, and while I said “yes,” I might have well said, “no,” because I remembered nothing of the island.  On my previous trip, my twenty-four hour buzz obscured the landscape, kept me confined to the designated Spring Break hotels and nightclubs, locked me inside the tunnel vision of alcohol. 

This time?  The ashram forbade alcohol so that made it easy.  And I was almost three years sober which made it even better.  And miraculous.  Because I would not have been able to go on this journey three years previous.  I mean, this was the Caribbean.  And just down the beach from the ashram was The Atlantis where they served all kinds of kitschy alcoholic drinks in coconut shells with umbrellas and swirly straws.  But who needs The Atlantis?  I could have had drinks on the plane.  Or in the airport.  Or back at home when my husband was out walking the dogs.  I could have been drinking all along. 
But I wasn’t.  And I didn’t want to.  Which was why I was in that little boat taxi all by myself in front of the Welcome Sign.  In fact, the ashram’s welcome sign seemed to be the Anti-Spring Break Welcome Sign.  The exact thing to ward off the debauched, the over-inflated, the drunkards, the carousers, and the degenerates.  In fact, it seemed to be a welcome sign that was meant to target all of my own struggles, past and present: over-exercise, anorexia, depression, self-recrimination, and mania.

And had I been inside the dark cocoon of depression and crippling self-doubt, I couldn’t have done this, wouldn’t have stepped off the boat.  But I was ready for adventure, ready to feel uncomfortable, to feel out of place—no that’s no it—to feel out of my place. 
So I walked down the dock, holding my tiny carry-on suitcase, not wanting to drag it, to make any rattling, undue noise.  The ashram full with people—Krishna Das, the Yoga Chant Rock Star was in residence for the weekend—so it felt overwhelming.  I knew, if I wanted to, I could disappear—what IT was telling me to do—“Nobody will want to know you.  You’re just a pretender.  You don’t belong here.”  All my insecurities surfaced.  Funny how even at 41, I could feel like I was 12 again. 

Which meant I had to fight twice as hard to remember it wasn’t the 6th grade anymore, and that I had the power to shape my experience and that I was free of all that old baggage.  I didn’t pack any of that shit in my carry-on—I only packed what was truthful and loving.  Oh yeah, and my yoga mat, too. 

I was ready to do this on my own.  Four hours of chanting every day, starting with a 5:30 am wake up gong; four hours of yoga every day, plus my bonus Meditation Course I’d signed up for because I’d been trying to work meditation into my life unsuccessfully on my own for the past few years and only wound up irritated by my inability to sit still for more than three minutes, at my mind’s seemingly inability to stop cataloguing all the things it would rather be doing than to empty itself and find a quiet spot of NOW, at my body’s inability to stop twitching and itching and yearning to break free from easy pose.  I wanted to find out if it was possible to be taught—in the five days—to move one inch closer to a meditation practice or if I was just a hopeless case of manic monotony.

This is what I discovered on my journey:
Proper Exercise:

Yoga = Asana ≠ Power Yoga: At home, my yoga practice is certainly not power yoga, but it is more closely allied with exercise.  I tend to do yoga on my days in between running as a form of cross training.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the spiritual benefits associated with breathing between the poses, with the symbolism of the poses—reaching for sun, being grounded in the earth, giving myself over in savasana—with the mindfulness that I reap in the practice of yoga.  But if all I did in a class was, say, tree pose and savasana?  I’m not sure I’d continue.  So it came as great surprise to me when the instructors at the ashram kept emphasizing that the yoga/asana classes were one of the primary paths towards a meditation practice.  In fact, the asanas (poses) selected were building blocks for meditation.  Each two hour class was structured in almost exactly the same way, with the same sequence of poses, emphasizing not the more physically aerobic standing sequences (the warriors and lunges) that I’m used to, but more devoted to shoulder stand, fish, bow, wheel, and headstand (my nemesis). 
Initially, I found myself getting frustrated over the quieter pace.  Heck!  I wasn’t even sweating in the Caribbean heat!  But then I realized this was exactly what happened when I sat down in my previous attempts to meditate: I wanted time to speed up; I wanted to be up and moving.  I mean really?  What was the point in sitting down wasting valuable energy when I could be doing something more productive?  So these yoga classes were invaluable.  In a matter of days, I’d return to my more “energetic,” diverse classes, but for the moment, I needed to yield to the NOW and to the mat of the moment.

Outside of the Pranayama (breathing) structured exercises we did at the beginning of the yoga classes, I found myself giving my whole breathing being over during the long formal singing chants we did at dawn and at night that would often last for an hour of longer.  The chanting became almost a regulated heartbeat with a call and response feel, and I would often close my eyes and without really caring whether or not I was getting the words right, I would breathe deeply and sing my part, and feel swept up in the rhythmic tide of it all.  Every now and them, self-consciousness would fall away.

Once, I skipped dawn Satsang (chanting), and went, instead, for a solo walk down the beach.  I was alone in the best way with myself, breathing in the blue waters and the just risen sun.  There was nobody on the beach to see me—so I was nobody—except who I was to myself.  At the moment, I was happy—I didn’t really miss anyone or need anyone or want anyone.  I was content simply as is for the now, breathing in the sun and sea.

The basic?  The meals at the ashram were lacto-vegetarian (no meat or eggs), and were delicious and abundant.  Homemade granola, fresh fruit, soups, bean lasagna, zuccinni layer cake, sautéed beets, homemade breads. 
No caffeine.  There was a Starbucks down the beach at The Atlantis that some participants would sneak off to for their morning and afternoon fix (even though we all had to sign an agreement not to imbibe in caffeine, alcohol, or illegal drugs while at the ashram).  It would have been so easy to have followed suit, given my obsession with Lattés.  And perhaps, the me of a few years ago—the me who liked to lie and sneak around, filching drinks of other kinds--would have snuck up the back jungle path to Starbucks rationalizing that it was only coffee.  But now?  I’m an all-in kind of gal, these days.  And one coffee would have ruined my karma.  I would have been a liar, the great pretender, if only to myself.  So fennel tea and water for the five days.

And speaking of diet, I ate like I was ravenous, something I wouldn’t have done on my own a few years ago.  Just three years ago, I was in an Eating Disorders inpatient hospital, refusing to eat, having to have every bite I took monitored.  And now?  Here I was wearing a bikini, not really worrying about how I looked in it, and eating to my stomach and heart’s content.  Which speaks to the next category…
Positive Thinking:

In my meditation Course, we had to come up with a personal mantra that we could use if we got restless (me!) while sitting in meditation.  So I thought about one of the most beautiful things that we bring back with us from Greece: a sea urchin shell.  I thought about how when you’re snorkeling above on the surface and you look down, all you can see are these forbidding creatures carpeting the rocks and sea floor, glittering with their black spines.  Those spines are their best defense, keeping everyone else away.  But then, of course, when they die and those spines fall off, those beautiful round, delicate shells are beneath.  So I thought about sea urchins, when I was thinking about my mantra, and I began to whisper, “Beneath the spines are beauty.”  Because often, I feel like that—my prickly exterior gives way to something delicate and beautiful beneath.  And then as a follow up, I said, “I am joy, I am joy, I am joy.”

Everywhere and all the time.  I practiced and practiced without knowing I was.  At Satsang, yes, of course, while chanting.  But in yoga class while moving through my asanas.  And walking along the beach at dawn.  And while eating, and enjoying the food and being present for the joy of the meal with strangers.
My meditation station.  This is what I was instructed to construct at home.  A formal place to meditate—someplace to hold my gaze and energy.  So I did.  A low shelf on my nightstand that I can sit in front of, and—I do.  I’m up to ten minutes.  On the shelf?  A photo of my children to remind me of why I am part of this world; a picture of the Buddha, for his wisdom and serenity; a clay dragon my daughter made for me when I went to the hospital once—she called it my “healing dragon,” and a sea urchin shell—that thing of beauty.  





Monday, February 3, 2014

Arctic (Bipolar) Depression and the Dance Cure

Current conditions indicate that I am in an arctic depression and the weather system is not budging.  In fact, it is causing ground conditions to destabilize: my brain’s atmosphere is gray and bleak; the horizon seems more like a flat, unscalable wall than one where there is sunrise and sunset each day; and each morning, after sending the kids off to school, I crawl back into bed because I can’t bear the thought of fighting my way through another day.  Of course, guilt gets me out of bed within the hour, but I resent getting out of bed, getting in the shower, going to the gym, doing all the things that are supposed to make me feel good about being alive.
I know, I know, I know.  I’ve been here before.  Bipolar depression takes me down this difficult, harrowing path several times a year, so I am well-schooled with that fact that I will eventually come out on the somewhat sunnier side.  But that doesn’t make the waiting game any easier.  Add to this that it truly is the deep well of Western Pennsylvania winter, which means most days are gray days, and the snow piles deep and cold, and temperatures are frigid at best.  As a result, I feel like one of those fifteenth-century peasants, all bundled up in layers, teeth chattering, dour and irritable, waiting for some sign that the sun and Spring will return but doubting it ever will.  No wonder I take to my bed.

And then there’s my newest diagnosis of Hypothyroidism due to my Lithium which might be a partial cause for my low energy and depression, as well as a recent inexplicable weight gain (guess what that does to Eating Disordered thinking that still hangs on).  So my doctor has just prescribed a new med which will hopefully help, but I’m not holding out for any miracles, but that just may be my negative arctic depressive thinking talking.  Maybe this will help turn my thinking around lickety-split and that horizon will suddenly reveal the sun rising in full glory.
But not all is doom and gloom.  What I’ve learned over the years is to push myself forward even when I’m stuck in the ditch on the harrowing path getting sprayed by icy slush from passing cars.  I have to otherwise I might give in to the temptation of the numbing cold, my toes and feet and fingers and hands losing all sensation, passing through the pain, giving into the pleasing seduction of freezing to death.  What I did instead was danced.  The other night for over two hours at a party without caring what I looked like.  Without giving into my self-conscious censor.  Giving into joy and abandon instead—the most effective counterweight to depression.  I danced to crazy 80’s songs and songs that just won Grammys and songs that told me to shake my ass.  By the end, my hair was damp and my back was sweaty and I was very, very happy.  And for two mornings in a row, the horizon has been a little closer and I haven't felt so much like crawling back into bed.  Maybe the weather system is lifting...just a little.  



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Strong, Sober, and Sane

Strong, Sober, and Sane.  These are the three words that I want to define my path in 2014.  Words I’ve been working my way towards—separately—for the past few years, but have been too small of vision, too timid to put them all together into one big AND for myself.  I can be all three, all at once.  I don’t have to do strong or sober or sane one at a time, piecemeal.  That’s for wobbly-kneed wimps.
Take today.  I signed up for my first Half-Marathon ever.  13.1 miles.  Sure, I’ve run 10 miles before, so another 3 miles more doesn’t seem like it should kill me.  But I’ve always been pretty tired at the end of 10 miles—on the point of giving up—and the self-talk has been desperate (“Please, please just another fifteen, ten, five feet and I won’t ever make you do this again?  Well, maybe in another week, but it’ll be easier next time.  I promise!”)  But here’s the thing: the fact that I can ever sign up for this race means I’m a radically different person than I was two years ago.  I’m strong—and by this I mean my body is come-back-from-the-dead-strong.  Once upon a time, I was only living to become weak and weaker still, starving and purging in an attempt to disappear.  I wouldn’t feed my body, so my body ate itself.  People looked at me and were afraid that I was going to collapse.  I was strong then, but strong-willed, stubborn, and irrational.  Now, when people look at me, they’re no longer afraid that I’m going to blow over or pass out at the track—except maybe when my face turns bright red from exertion, which I can’t help.  I love the feeling when I’m working out with free weights and lifting them over my head, doing barbell curls, and crazy kettlebell, twisty sit-ups, how something hard and tough and unbreakable is growing inside of me.  And every now and then that Eating Disordered Self pipes in and says, “You know that weightlifting will increase body weight, don’t you?”  And to that I say, “Fuck you!”  Because I’d rather be strong than weak, here than dead.

Sober.  I’m trying to extend this one beyond just alcohol to a more expansive understanding of the word sobriety.  To be sober means to be thoughtful.  And this is what I would like to be: a more forward-thinking, more reflective, more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of being Bipolar, but my anger can be volcanic, my emotions run riot—at least when I’m alone or at home.  Out in public, I try to keep myself together.  I want to be like the women in those commercials that you always see standing in some doorway wearing a long white, flowy gown, hair blowing off their backs, holding onto a mug of tea.  They always look calm and content--one foot in the house, the other out on the beach.  And it’s early morning, too!  That’s what I’d like to aim for—an unruffled demeanor, a quietude, an ability to be present in myself without the need to rush around yapping at everyone else.
Sane.  What’s the expression?  The proof is in the pudding?  For the first time, well, in ever, I’m going on a solo vacation!  I am finally stable enough in my Bipolar Disorder to be able to venture out on my own for a solo adventure.  No overseers.  Ahem.  Caretakers.  Ahem.  Companions.  Just me on a mini-immersion in February for few days at a Yoga Ashram in the Caribbean.  Granted, nobody in the family would have been willing for mandatory 5:30am chanting and yoga classes and vegetarian food (not to mention ixnay on the caffeine and tent sleeping), but to me, this will be heaven!  And the only reason I get to do this is because I’ve maintained stability, kept my bearings together, fought IT off, been proactive in seeking out help when I’ve needed it, and kept my recovery front and center.  There are weeks when I forget that I was once the women located in an isolation room in the psych unit sleeping on a mattress on the floor, where I once wandered the psych unit so overmedicated I could barely tell you my name, where I was told by a psychiatrist that I was a hopeless case.  That was just three years ago.  You can read about that woman if you go back to the beginning of this blog—she’s there, and desperate and angry and scared.  But I’m not there anymore.

Strong and Sober and Sane.  That’s how far I’ve come and it keeps getting better.             

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Courage to Come Home

“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility, and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before.  If you can live through it than you can live through anything.  You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

                                                                                                                --Eleanor Roosevelt

Someone should sound a Tibetan singing bowl because it’s been a long time since I’ve had a genuine crisis.  No five-alarm fires, no emergency response teams, not even an Epi-pen.  This period of relative peace and stability, while welcome, is uncomfortable as it feels unnatural.  I’ve been living for so long on high-alert status, waiting to implode or dissolve, living with a twitchy vigilance that refused all calls to put down my arms.  Take a deep breath and relax?  Pretend that I’m okay?  That I won’t derail at any moment?  That stability might in fact be more than a fantasy?
And yet, here I am, single-parenting again for a week while my husband is away for work, not just getting through it, like I might have once done—mood unstable, exhaustion dogging me, feeling flattened by the effects of barely managing, and castigating myself for being the universe’s worst mother—but thriving through it.  I’ve happily managed to get my son through one of his busiest and most important weeks of his life—he was in a college production of Medea; we all generally ate and slept well (snuggled up in bed together); we kept to a routine as it suited us and when it didn’t, we had pancakes for dinner; and I didn’t lose my shit as much as I used to when I was alone and in charge—I let things slip and slide.  My assessment this time around?  A pretty damn good mother.  Maybe even the best mother for my kids.

It takes courage to get through a week of single parenting.  For any parent on their own.  Much less a parent with Bipolar Disorder.  I can admit this now.  Before, I’d shrug.  Big deal.  It’s just a week, a few days, even a few hours.  What the hell do I have to worry about?  Feel overwhelmed by?  But when mania is running high or depression is drowning you, those hours alone and in charge might as well be years.  The voice of IT comes in, berating you for not being a good enough mother, telling you that your children would be better off with you dead, that you should save them from the scourge of yourself.
I am learning about courage from my son, who just might be one of the bravest people I know.  This Fall, he was on a soccer team and he was one of the younger, smaller, less advanced players.  He didn’t score any goals or make any big plays the entire season.  Nor was he Mister Sunnyside Up either.  He came home from many practices and games pretty down on himself, talking about how he was the worst player out there, how no one passed to him, how he would never score a goal.  And yet, despite what my daughter called his “self-esteem problem,” my son went on that field every week charged up; he refused to be intimidated by kids who were bigger or better than him, and he never stopped wondering, if maybe this wasn’t the game he might score a goal.

What does stability bring?  It has brought me two gifts this week that, had I been spinning in chaos, I don’t think would have come my way. 
Two days ago, I was contacted by Bipolar Hope Magazine—they want to interview me for an upcoming article on the pleasures and perils of traveling with Bipolar Disorder.  Obviously, as a frequent traveler across time zones, I can probably offer my useful two cents.  But what seems miraculous to me is the fact that I will be considered an “expert” in a publication with the words “Bipolar” and “Hope” together.  That I am now considered a voice of “Hope” for this disorder when not so very long ago I considered myself hopeless—indeed, I was even told I was hopeless.  And to be “out” in such a publication as one of the “Hopefuls” is for me an act of courage as it suggests that I am a believer—one who has a forward-moving future.   

And then just yesterday, I received a phone call from a woman in my 12-Step Recovery group asking me if I might be her guide through the 12-Steps.  A kind of quasi-sponsor as I’m not in town enough or available enough to be a full-blown sponsor.  This scares the ABSOLUTE SHIT out of me.  That she sees me as far enough along in recovery to help her in her recovery.  That she doesn’t see me as someone in crisis, someone headed in a downward spiral, but sees me as a beacon of hope, as someone who embodies courage.  Part of me wants to take back my “Yes.”  Because what if it all does go to shit again?  What if I fall apart again?  What if I fail her as I fail myself?  But this “Yes” takes courage, doesn’t it?
This “yes” is the “yes” I learned from my son this past weekend while he performed in his play.  It was amazing to me to watch him each night.  Of course, he’d spent the past several weeks rehearsing with the college cast, but still—he’s only eight years old and it was a real stage and the audience was packed.  Every night I’d drop him off at the dressing room with the other cast members and he would give me a quick kiss goodbye. 

“I’m fine!  I’m fine,” he insisted.  “Go!”
“Break a leg,” I said, and left, my heart swelling and aching.

I sat in my seat and watched the play, waiting for my son.  When he came on stage, he was so self-assured, so inspired, and without fear.  And I could see that he knew he had found his place in the world.
This is what I’m learning in recovery and through stability—to find self-assurance, inspiration, and to live without fear.  And as I’m finding it, I know I’m coming home. 




Friday, October 25, 2013

Bipolar Bad Hair Day

I am having the mental health equivalent of a very bad hair day.  Nothing so serious that requires hospitalization or even a call to my doctors, but really, I look in the mirror, and everything looks out-of-whack, frizzy, frumpy, out-of-style, unfixable even armed with the very best hair products that money can buy.  It’s moments like these that I might impulsively buzz all my hair off—and of course, regret that move tomorrow.  Better hide under some enormous hat and wait out the grotesque, restless, hopeless uglies, right?  After all, my favorite musical as a kid was “Annie,” and I used to annoy my entire family with renditions of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow”—belting the song in my warbly, screechy voice, believing indeed, at nine years old that it would always and forever keep getting better and better.
Today started, most indulgently, with a quasi-day off.  The kids have a day off from school, so the schedule shifts.  No need to rush out of bed, no need to run at top speed, no hustling everyone out to door, no need for me to try to stick to my own self-imposed schedule of working on my own writing which is then followed up by a run at the gym. 

Nope.  This is how Bipolar Brain works.  An extra hour in bed.  The upended schedule (I stay home with the kids, forfeiting my work, hence my quasi-usefulness/productivity for one-day) leads to existential meltdown.  As I was lying in bed debating whether or not it was even worth getting out of bed, I wondered who, besides my kids would even care if I did?  Who was even expecting me to get out of bed?  No one.  This is Black and White thinking in the extreme—though it is shot around the edges with realistic thinking so it does try to makes its case, hence its powerful pull.  From there I ricocheted to: Would anyone care if I ever wrote another story?  Would I care?  And really, what did my writing add up to in the end?  Nothing much—and if I was going to amount to anything as a writer, it should have happened by now.  I had my chance and wasted it.  Look at me.  Just think about how hard it is now trying to get words on the page, struggling with memory lapses and word recall because of the ECT—is it worth the trouble? 
And just as I was beating myself up about this, I get an email on my phone from my agent.  My most recent story she’s been sending out for submission to magazines has been rejected again.  I know, I know.  You need a thick skin to be a writer.  And I have one.  But this is the fifth time this story has been rejected, and I was just so so so hoping for just a little lift. Just something to remind that, Yes, this is still my path. 

Instead, the rejection coincided with my contemplating whether I should just give this all up because I’m mostly just professional laundress anyway these days.  That and cleaner of the cat boxes.  I feel like my thinking brain has been switched off and I’m on automatic chore pilot.  That I’m purposeless beyond maintaining the house and picking up the kids from school.  Aimless.  Am uninteresting even to myself. I get why all those housewives in the fifties downed Martinis and valium.
When I was a kid there was this enormous brick wall near my house.  I used to take my tennis racquet and a ball and spend an hour whacking the ball against the wall as hard as possible.  I’d go there when I was bored, angry, or frustrated and I’d just pick a spot on the wall and aim the ball right at it.  Sometimes it was a face or a burning red hole.  It never failed to help ease whatever I was feeling. 

I wish I had a wall, a racquet and a ball today.  I think I could spend a few hours there.     

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Testing, Testing, Self-Compassion

Self-compassion—the ability to have self-empathy, self-directed kindness and understanding.  Apparently something I lack in spades.  My new (and fabulous) psychiatrist, Dr. D., has me working on self-compassion exercises, and even had me take a test measuring my self-compassion.  The result?  One of the lowest scores possible. 
When I think of a kind, encouraging voice—or at least my kind encouraging voice offering Hallmark variety affirmations?  I want to walk across hot coals.  Beat myself with a stick.  I remember once, on a Catholic weekend retreat in High School, we were given buttons that said, “God don’t make junk.”  I cringed, not only at the grammar lapse, but at the sweet-sickly sentiment of it.  I didn’t want something that could fit on a button—I wanted to be convinced by route of hard-earned, persuasive argument.  Not the soft shoulder pat. 

But I also know that all I tend to given myself are jarring shoulder smacks.  I don’t know any in-between.  I don’t know the gray.  I only live in the black or the white.  The land of exteremes.  The highs and the lows.  Which is what lands me in trouble.  Maybe it’s time to begin to practice self-compassion.  One way in which I’m constantly berating myself all day long is over the fact that I am Bipolar—or mentally ill, about being what other people sometimes label “crazy” because this is the label that echoes in me, that reverberates in me, that makes me question whether it was the ethical to allow myself to fall in love, to get married, to have children—to pass on my particularly destabilizing genetic flaws.  “Why did you?  How could you?”—this is the background white noise that plays all day—or at least is part of it, anyway.  Nothing compassionate about that.
See why it’s so hard for me to be compassionate?  I try to say the word and the anti-compassionate backlash begins.

But I will try.  So.  Maybe a separate, friendlier font will help.  And maybe a separate friendlier me, a “you” addressing me will help, too:
Do you remember a few months ago when you were looking for a new psychiatrist and you called the one recommended by your old doctor and before he would meet with you, he asked to see your records?  And then he finally called you back.  Do you remember what he said?  He said he couldn’t see you because you were too much of an “extreme case,” that you were too “mentally ill,” for him to treat.  And maybe if someone only read your records, only saw the objective line notes in a case file, an unattached observer might state that you are “beyond help,” or as another previous doctor told you to your face, “beyond hope.”  But don’t you see how the life you are living proves that you are not only able to be helped by others and able to help yourself, but that you are also living out hope?  You tried to die several times over but you are still alive, so there must be some greater reason for you still being here.  And maybe your mission has shifted from what you had hoped it would be, but that’s okay.  Did you ever really care what anyone thought of you? 

Do you remember your nickname as a kid?  “Crazy Kerry”  Kids called you that because you acted crazy—amped up—unable to pull back—unable to calm down.  Probably the early signs of bipolar hypomania.  But perhaps a telling nickname, one that might have been cutting then, one that might have stung, but one that you could use now as the way into anchoring your identity for good—for GOOD.  You didn’t DO ANYTHING bad to deserve this diagnosis.  You didn’t do anything to deserve becoming bipolar.  You didn’t do anything to deserve getting traumatized and sexually assaulted.  You didn’t do anything to have the genetic predisposition for alcoholism.  You didn’t do anything to have to genetic predisposition to become anorexic.  You aren’t inherently wrong or defective.  You aren’t meant to be taken out of commission because you are not operating at perfection.  Or your idea of perfection. 

“Crazy Kerry”—things haven’t been “right” from the get go.  You didn’t make some devastatingly wrong turn or decision at some crucial juncture—i.e., if only you could go back and right the wrongs.  This disease doesn’t work like that.  It works inside the brain from the start, incrementally.  It has always been.  In preschool you have always been.  In first grade, you have always been.  In sixth grade, you have always been.  Just at varying degrees.  “Crazy Kerry.”  NOT Oh, all was perfect, until one afternoon, at fourteen, you had a bad depressing, manic moment and cut your arm and that was that and if only you could do it all over again your life could be perfect.

The only thing wrong?  The people around you who responded—or failed to respond—who ignored, who didn’t recognize—or pretended it was not happening—who insisted that you lie about what you were experiencing—who demanded that hospital records be expunged—who created a façade for you to live inside.  Thus, your “real” experience, your “real” feelings weren’t to be trusted, weren’t acknowledged even by you.  It’s why the only thing that feels safe is the outside façade.  If everything looks perfect--the outside self, the outside life—then the inside self can be tricked into going on for just one more day.  The delay-suicide-pact that works for a bit. 

But everything doesn’t have to be so breathlessly scary anymore.  You don’t have to hide beneath perfection anymore.  You don’t have to keep suicide at bay anymore by running down the clock.  It is okay.  It’s going to be okay.  I know you don’t believe me.  But you don’t have to take care of yourself on your own anymore.  There might be people who truly care about you who want to help you that you can trust.    The kind of falling backwards with your eyes closed into their arms kind of trust.  The hardest thing for you to do.  But you can do this because you are loved.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bipolar Code Word: Go To Your Room

The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years.  In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies launched across the room from sling shots or poodles riding skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated. 
To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia.  Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear?  His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.
“No, no, no,” I said.  “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia.  They’re very different from each other.”  Though not so different chromosomally.  Close cousins, really.  In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take, so I’m not sure how different we are, except for the hearing voices part.  Because in the horrific depths of depression and at the heights of mania I’ve had psychotic episodes and delusions.  But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom!  Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said.  “You have that one.  You have the mood swings one.”  She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom.  “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad.  Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”
Alexander threw both his hands in the air.  “Yeah!  You do!  Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”

I closed my eyes.  I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See?  This disease will ruin your relationship with your children.  It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.
I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said.  “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”
“Yeah,” Sophia said.  “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room.  And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them.  They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen.  They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar.  All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it.  So they could help me help myself.  So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.
“I have an idea,” I said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening.  I’m not always able to spot it right away.  But you guys are experts.  So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled.  “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”
Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”

“Right,” I said.  “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out.  So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’  Okay?”
They both nodded and we shook on it.  Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug.  I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing?  My own mother has a big personality with powerful emotions and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good defense system constructed from concrete blocks and a dissociative moat.  I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth; his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.

And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well.  And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft?  Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry.  Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to My room.”       


Monday, September 2, 2013

Back-To-School Mania

Back-To-School season.  Impossible not to feel revved up.  Pushing the shopping cart up and downthe store aisles, hyped up on the SALES!!!, the lure of “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!”, the idiotic sense of accomplishment as I check off once, then twice just to be sure that I’ve managed to score the yellow highlighters, the jumbo packs of No.2 pencils, the pens, the 48 pack of crayons, the 5 multi-colored folders, the 5 marbled notebooks, the pencil-tip erasers, the pink ear buds, the locker mirror, and the pencil sharpener.  But what about the locker magnets and mini-dry erase board and extra loose-leaf packs and extra-extra notebooks?

Can Back-To-School shopping induce mania?  I know when I got home, I went right to work organizing my daughter’s backpack, which would, within the first day, become its usual chaotic mess—a jumble of pens and pencils and anime drawings on the back of handouts—a disorganization that makes sense to her.  But there I was putting all the little pencil tip erasers in one zippered pocket and the pack of crayons in another, and sharpening half the pencils and lining them up in the same direction inside her blue pencil case. 

This has been the one reliable (and perhaps annoying to others) effect of my Bipolar Disorder: my thoughts and emotions might often be a disordered mess, like getting stuck in the middle of tangled briar patch, but my tangible external world, the rooms, the cabinets, the purses, the pencil cases, these places and things can be orderly and rational.  So that when I look at them, I don’t have to get lost but can see a clear and reliable way in and out.  No mess, no tangles, no getting stuck.

I do these “clean-outs” all the time, often to the consternation and panic of my husband.  He’ll come home from  work or a trip and I’ll have cleaned out the attic closet or the kitchen cupboards: what were once cluttered, suffocating mazes of old lamps, boxes of outdated receipts, clothes too big and moth-eaten; or packages of stale crackers, cans of weird soups bought at a close-out store, bad chocolate, or furry olives are now orderly shelves and racks, only what is needed is kept, surfaces bleached clean, insect husks vacuumed away, everything with a place and in its place.

What inspires my husband’s panic is a few past zealous mistakes on my part—I’ve thrown out some things that should have been saved—some documents that were, after all, necessary; food items that weren’t past date (though they looked it to me); objects that were not-so-lovely but had sentimental value.  So I’m more circumspect—checking for legal or love references, sniffing and, if warranted, licking, and asking thrice (“Soooo, do you really, really, really need this?”) 

But when it comes to my junk?  I’m ruthless.  Maybe it ties into my longing to take a stiff broom to my brain, sweep it clean--a blank slate.  Sweep up all the suicidal impulses, every last desire to hurt myself, sweep up all the hurt and emptiness and sadness, all the trauma.  A nice big pile, sweep it into a dustbin and fling it out to sea.  But this is just a fleeting image.  The re-cycling mania and near constant rumination prevent any permanent housekeeping.  Bipolar Disorder creates constant clutter—it’s like wandering the stacks of a University Library at hyperspeed grabbing this book on Chemical Thermodynamics and that book on Nautical Curiosities and this book on the Butterflies of Jamaica and that book on the Jamestown Settlement. 

Which brings me back to Back-To-School.  I miss the purpose of going back to school.  As a kid, it was a container for my impulsiveness, for my speed, for my intensity.  The school day offered order and direction, and because I loved books and learning, it showed me how to channel my drive.  It showed me how to slow down my breathing and make it a game: complete my tasks, watch the clock, beat the clock, have time left over 

And I had my pencil case.  Hello Kitty.  Magnetic Lid.  Everything I needed to survive the day was inside.  3 sharpened pencils lined up in the same direction. 1 eraser.  How could that be enough?  In the time left over at the end of official tasks, I wrote my secret stories in my extra notebook.  Story after story after story.  3rd grade. 4th grade. 5th grade. I’m still writing stories, though they’re no longer secret anymore.       

Monday, August 19, 2013

Emancipation from Emaciation

Last week, I was sitting in my nutritionist’s office for what was close to my 100th appointment: almost two appointments every month, sometimes every week, for the past five years.  Each appointment usually began with clockwork terror and double-fisted anxiety as I stepped on the scale—shoeless, lest I try to add any cheaters’ ounces (or pounds in winter boots) to my grand total. Of course, no one ever checked my underwear, which on more than one occasion, I stuffed with three pound squishy, hand weights and a smooth two pound stone I hefted from my garden.  After, I gave a general recounting of my meals and snacks, of any restricting and purging, my honesty waxing and waning as my anorexia tightened and loosened its grip over the years.  I wouldn’t say I was always deliberately lying, as oftentimes, those imaginary meals seemed as real as the ones I threw up in toilets and behind trees on the street.  Finally, we’d discuss all of the issues I was struggling with in regards to body image and disordered thinking—and by discuss, I mean I’d often, with hostility, pontificate on all the ways in which I would not eat more, could not love my loathsome body (never ever), and really, could not see why everybody couldn’t just leave me alone because I was fine as is, even if my heart was acting out, and my system was in starvation mode, and all signs pointed towards death; I didn’t need to eat anymore—maybe it would be better if I could stop purging what little I did eat, but I felt set free when I was empty and I didn’t want to go back.
But this time was different.  This time, when I stepped on the scale, I didn’t have any hidden rocks, my teeth weren’t clenched, and I wasn’t ready to try to argue the numbers down with my nutritionist: “Okay,” I used to say, “That is too high.  I’m too fat.  Huge.  Disgusting.  Obviously you need to reduce my meal plan.  This is out of control.”

This time, I knew what was coming because a week before, after running at the gym, I weighed myself and found that I was a few pounds under my target weight.  What happened?  Panic.  I started to panic because I didn’t weigh enough.  This is the crazy, reverse logic of somebody who has settled into Eating Disorder Recovery.  My response?  I actually, and on my own, stepped up my meal plan.  No, I didn’t start going through the fast food drive-thrus, ordering super-sized fries and chocolate shakes, but I did start adding additional servings of my trail mix, increased my portions of peanut butter, had bowls of cereal and soy milk as a mid-morning snack, and dessert?  Every night.  So when my nutritionist weighed me that day?  I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I felt good.  Better than good.  At home in my body. 

Next?  We talked about my meals over the past month, and truly?  Not much to talk about except that A.) I was eating my three meals and two snacks a day; B.) I didn’t have any urges to restrict or purge; C.) No foods seemed to be on my “Off Limits” list (i.e., once upon a time, anything with fat or carbs could not pass my lips or if it did, it passed my lips twice).
Finally? Well, no point in lying and saying that I no longer had any body image issues or disordered thinking.  Most days, I still look in the mirror and don’t like what I see, but I don’t obsess.  A year ago?  Likely 1000 Eating Disorder/Negative Body Image thoughts a day came at me like a battering ram.  A constant voice on endless repeat all day long, all night long.  I couldn’t enjoy eating a bite of just-picked Empire apple, a crumble of dark chocolate sprinkled with sea salt, a piece of my own blueberry cobbler hot out of the oven, a wedge of the stinky-est, yummiest, runniest French brie.  I couldn’t take a shower without cataloguing all of my naked faults and wanting to slice them off with the razor I was using to shave my (too fat, too thick, too too too legs).  The voice of an Eating Disorder is the Voice that destroys Joy, it is the Voice of Death.

But what I told my nutritionist is that I can honestly say that 1000 thoughts are now 100.  A miraculous improvement.  And food?  I can taste the joy of food again.  All of it.  Even the food I hate, like pork chops and raw onion.  Even the food I love, like ripe tomatoes and carrot cake.  My body?  Getting there.  I’m allowed to exercise again because I eat again and weigh more.  I love feeling powerful and strong more than I love feeling underweight and weak.  So I eat more when I lose pounds because I run too far and too often.  But it’s a good bargain.  A necessary one.   
When I look in the mirror?  I don’t always look away.  And sometimes I smile back because what I see has been worth the fight.  An imperfect survivor.  I can choose how close I want to get to that mirror each time—how far I want to step back—how much I want to magnify—or not.  My choice.  Not the automatic orders of some inflexible despot bent on my destruction.  But I also know the mirror no longer has the power to kill me.  A mirror bears me no ill will.  It has no intention.  Only I do.  Even Neolithic Man (or Woman) made mirrors, grinding obsidian stone down to flat surfaces, then polishing them to a reflective sheen with ash.  Somehow, I don’t think my primitive ancestor was spending an inordinate amount of time wondering whether or not her stomach was flat enough or whether her ribs and clavicles showed enough or if there was enough hollow space between her thighs—after all, she was likely already on the verge of starving (bad wooly mammoth season), and more importantly, she was transfixed by the absolute wonder of her own being reflected back at her.  I am me.  What a real and true and beautiful thing.  (Never mind the unintentional, lice-filled dreadlocks and lack of orthodontic care.)

The mirror just reflects me without judgment, without interpretation.  It’s my responsibility to let my reflection be.  Be still.  Be real.  Be true.  Be beautiful as myself, in myself, WITHOUT COMMENTARY.

As my appointment came to a close, my nutritionist smiled.  Instead of opening her scheduler as usual and scanning for the next available slot, she said, “Well, I think you’ve been doing really good for the past year and maintaining your weight.  Keeping everything in balance.  I think it’s time for you to see me on an as needed basis.  You seem like you’re ready for this, like you’ve found your way free from the Eating Disorder.”

“Free?”  I took a deep breath.  “I’m not sure I’m free as in Scott free.  It’s like with drinking.  One drink and I could be back sneaking shots of vodka in the basement and having blackouts, two and half years of sobriety out the window.  This is the same thing.  One deliberately skipped meal due to disordered thinking could easily lead to another skipped meal could lead to a week and suddenly I’m right back in Anorexia’s grip.  It happened five times so I know how much this disease would like to see me dead.  So I have to maintain vigilance.  But I am free of the lying and the manipulation and the desperation and the loneliness and terror.  Emancipation from Emaciation.”